I think there is a passage in Arthur Clarke’s “3001: The Final Odyssey” when the inhabitants of 31st-century Earth ask astronaut Frank Poole, a revived 21st-century man, whether he ever met any of the Founding Fathers. (I’m not completely sure if I have that right. I read the book over a decade ago, and it is easy to mix things up over time.)
Maybe Bluto said it best in “Animal House” when he tried to motivate his friends into action: “Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor? Hell no!”
Close enough? Perhaps someday, but not quite yet.
However, a thousand years from now, it may not even be well known among the general public that Germany was America’s foe in a 1940s war that involved a sneak attack on Pearl Harbor (or was it the World Trade Center?).
Indeed, maybe it is already being forgotten at the distance of not quite a century.
What about something really big, though? Will we always be able to place a watershed moment of our humanity (or inhumanity) into the correct historical, cultural and sequential context?
Take, for example, the Holocaust.
It does have a museum on the National Mall, so that will help. It is the largest genocide in recorded human history, and there are not that many people who can name another genocide or two (or more). So, it will probably not be crowded out of our minds or confused with something else — unless there is an even bigger genocide on the way. Of course, remembering the Holocaust is supposed to prevent genocides from happening again, so there is nothing to worry about on that score, right?
But, bit by bit, some of the relevant details are already slipping away. Last week’s coverage of the story about U.S. Marines posing in Afghanistan with an SS flag reminded me of this. (Huh, did you notice that? I forgot to call it a Nazi SS flag, thus stripping it of the important context.)
I have a long-standing personal policy against trying to make judgments about what is or is not happening in a war zone based on what I read on the Internet. I am not even going to nibble gingerly around the edges of how and why this incident happened, who is or is not responsible, and what should be done about it. I am sure all that will sort itself out in short order.
What struck me most about the story was the notion, whether accurate or not, that the young Marines who posed with the SS flag did not realize it was a Nazi SS flag. If the flag had borne a swastika — one almost does not have to say Nazi swastika — this excuse would seem implausible. For now, and maybe for as long at the Thousand-Year Reich was supposed to last, the swastika is an indelible primary symbol of Nazism. Surely nothing will change that. It is like the ancient ankh, which everyone knows is the Egyptian symbol for…something…
Gene Simmons’ mom survived a Nazi concentration camp…
In the minds of most young people today, is the SS as firmly and automatically associated with Nazis and the Holocaust as some who have reacted strongly to this incident insist that it should be? Or is this something only diehard KISS fans of an older generation would instantly realize?
Notwithstanding later protestations to the contrary (“No, not the SS, the Waffen-SS!”), the SS was the Nazis’ main arm for carrying out the policies dictated by Hitler’s Final Solution. But, indeed, SS troops also made up an elite military force, and maybe a young Marine is as likely to focus on that aspect of their existence as are the makers of high-quality action figures:
“Look, Ma, no swastikas!”
It is interesting to note that the creators of one of the most popular combat simulation games, the “Call of Duty” series, apparently decided that just plain old Nazis were not scary enough, so they came out with a scenario involving Nazi zombies. Maybe the evilness of the SS will not be driven home with young people until they make a game with SS vampires and werewolves. Perhaps they can even sell action figures. (On second thought, these would only join similarly themed films and graphic novels that already serve to make Nazis “cool.”)
In Lithuania and Latvia, Soviet symbols such as the hammer and sickle are outlawed along with Nazi emblems. Stalin and his zombies killed millions while shiny red stars twinkled in the communist firmament. Today you can see Russian hockey fans waving Soviet banners and wearing Bolshevik hats as nostalgic totems of a lost “greatness” they wish to bestow upon their national team. Maybe we should start thinking about opening a Museum of Communism on the National Mall — one without a gift shop selling Che Guevara t-shirts.
All these matters are about the here and now, or the next little while. What about in a thousand, or even two thousand years? Or longer. Other than what I know from watching Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, and from going to the traveling King Tut exhibit in San Francisco, whatever lessons should be kept uppermost in mind from ancient Egypt’s long and rich history are lost on me. Will the memory of Tahrir Square’s Arab Spring fade away unless someone builds a pyramid there?
Everything I know about Egypt I learned in the gift shop…
And what about the Holocaust? How many centuries will it be before our average minds will lump SS lightning bolts in with, say, a tricorn hat as something the Minutemen wore? (“Weren’t the Minutemen supposed to be ready in a flash, dear?”) Over time, details such as the connections we are expected to make between the symbol and something evil may slip away. Could that mean our broadly shared knowledge of the essential fact that millions were systematically murdered will also eventually subside?
Many say this is exactly why we must be vigilant for slippage, and that everything possible should be done to preserve the memories and the historical record of the Holocaust. So that we do not forget. So that it does not happen again. I wonder how long, at the most extreme range, such an effort can be effectively sustained. It may be that this incident in Afghanistan — though certainly not the reaction to it — already hints at the inevitable cumulative result of our loss of touch with more and more of the details.
Even with the Holocaust still in our living memory, there have since been a number of genocides in human society. A few centuries from now, or in a thousand years, it seems likely that there will be much less readily accessible socio-historical information in our brains about the downsides of genocide on the grandest possible scale.
We are repeat offenders as mass murderers just decades after the Holocaust, even while all the symbols and details remain fairly well catalogued in our minds. In future centuries, what might be the result of even less personal awareness? Will this make us as susceptible to killing as an organized and “necessary” scheme as we were in the century that recently ended? Could it be that we are inclined to be that way no matter what we know or remember?
Keeping an eye on the use and understanding of potent symbols has value. As we do so, we would like to believe that what is relevant and important to us now — or what our parents and grandparents told us mattered — can be made enduringly so. But if we seek reflections of lurking threats to our best intentions to always know and recall history’s lesson, we should look no farther than into the mirror to see the unfurled flag of potential evil. Those same uncaring, unknowing eyes will always be looking back at us, long after our minds have forgotten what we must remember about the millions, and even while we ignore the victims of some new millennium.
“Wake me up when you’ve got it figured out…”
Thus, the most telling and troublesome symbols whose appearance we must watch for are the killing fields of Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, and Darfur — and whatever place comes next. These are the jagged lightning bolts that should be met with thunderously loud questions about what is going on, who is responsible, and what we are going to do about it. Let us hope our individual outrage at the sight of offenses such as these will always be a thousand times greater than our personal indignation over misused symbols. Unfortunately, this has not always been the case.
The devil is in the details, and we can and should be aware of the details of our history. It will help, perhaps for a very long while. Yet, while Frank Poole is still sleeping, maybe we can use the time to learn to kill less, and to care more. If we do, and if we are very lucky, this could also lead to something that may help us, perhaps forever.